Caroline Dennett didn’t know what to do with all the attention.
Almost overnight, she’d gone from running her own risk management consultancy firm, Clout, to becoming a beloved martyr of the climate movement.
Her inbox was overflowing with requests to connect, to be interviewed here and profiled there. She had articles written about her in the likes of The Guardian, The Washington Post, VICE and the Financial Times. “It’s been nuts,” she tells WorkforClimate over a Zoom call. “It’s been absolutely nuts.”
All this attention because Dennett publicly sacked her longtime client, Shell, and sacrificed “around 60–70%” of her business in the process. She could’ve just sent an email, of course. Could’ve said “thanks but no thanks”, and quietly walked off into a fossil-fuel free sunset.
“It was a real opportunity to lift the lid,” she says. “It kind of blew the lid, actually!”
But for Dennett, whose climate advocacy had been increasing in the years leading up to her video resignation (she was also an active member of the Greens party for several years), ‘quietly’ wasn’t an option. This moment required an audience. “It was a real opportunity to lift the lid,” she says. “It kind of blew the lid, actually!”
Dennett’s video resignation (and the accompanying email, which was sent to 1,400 Shell employees) has been described as, among other things, a ‘bombshell’. But the delivery was anything but. It was a cool, calm and incredibly level-headed telling of the facts.
“Today I’m quitting because of Shell’s double-talk on climate,” says Dennett in the clip. “Shell’s stated safety ambition is to ‘do no harm’. It sounds honorable, but they are completely failing on it. They know that continued oil and gas extraction causes extreme harms – to our climate, to our environment, and to people.”
Dennett, who also spends a good chunk of her time working on divesting pension funds from fossil fuels in the UK, is humoured by the response to her resignation. “I tried to be measured, but I supposed it is quite dramatic,” she says. “It’s a conversation starter. Whether people think it was a good thing or a bad thing, or a total betrayal, or that I've gone crazy – it’s a conversation starter. And it’s a conversation that I've just not heard Shell have.”
Initially contracted by Shell after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, Dennett's work with Shell involved conducting studies and research to help improve safety processes and risk management across the company’s assets (oil rigs, gas plants, etc). But over the course of her contract with the company, as global warming turned into the climate crisis, Dennett’s definition of ‘risk’ changed dramatically.
Dennett’s day-to-day work with Shell would typically involve helping to prevent harms on a work site – leaks, explosions, spills, fires, personal injury and fatalities. That kind of thing. But she remembers talking with a colleague who was dealing with some damaging extreme weather events – 42 inches of rain in 24 hours – on a Shell site in Houston, and asking them: Is this climate change?
“What's the point in focusing on safety if you're going to ignore the most unsafe thing that you’re doing as a company?”
“But they didn’t join the dots,” she says. “They recognised that, yeah, climate change is a thing. But they just wouldn’t take responsibility for it as a fossil fuel company. That was a message I really wanted to convey in my resignation: what's the point in focusing on safety if you're going to ignore the most unsafe thing that you’re doing as a company?”
While her actions have been widely celebrated by the climate movement and she has no regrets, the resignation still kicked up a range of emotions and questions that she wasn’t expecting. “Just this morning, I felt a real sense of guilt that I had abandoned [my colleagues],” she says. “In many ways, I was probably their greatest ally, that voice of independence, banging the drum for safety.”
Dennett also acknowledges that she’s in a privileged position to be able to walk away from over half of her business, and concedes that not everyone who cares about the climate is going to have the means to make these kinds of decisions. Her theory of change, however, can be applied irrespective of means, influence or social or professional standing – and it was inspired by one of the world’s great thinkers.
One of the turning points in Dennett’s climate journey was when she attended a talk by seminal linguist, philosopher and activist, Noam Chomsky. “He just said, ‘You know what? Everyone should do what they can, with the abilities that they have, in the location they are,’” she says, paraphrasing. “For some people, that might be something that seems very minor, but everyone can do something. That’s all you can ask.”
Dennett continues: “If someone wants to write to their pension fund and say, ‘Take my money out of that fund, ‘cause I don’t want my money supporting fossil fuels’, that’s great. That’s a big help. And if somebody wants to go and glue themselves to Shell headquarters, that’s great too. I think it has to be everything.”
One of the unexpected side effects of Dennett’s resignation is how it helped fast-track her connections with other individuals in the climate movement. She’s been fielding “hundreds” of messages and emails, has been invited to speak at climate talks and conferences all over the world – she even featured on ABC drivetime radio here in Australia. “I think it just shows how at the forefront of people’s minds climate change is now,” she says. “Leaders are failing people. We are being failed so badly by our leaders.”
While she’s aware that she’s just a small part of a much bigger picture, Dennett hopes that her actions can be something of an inspiration for any other climate-concerned employees out there who know they need to do something, but don’t know how. “If you want the direction to change, it has to be driven by something,” she says. “And if it’s not being driven by the top, then it needs to be driven by the bottom. It’s hugely important that people feel empowered.”
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